CNN hosted a Republican debate in Miami last night. The four remaining candidates were asked questions on policy, more than politics, and the result was distinct positions on important issues of the day. Let’s look at a few of the big takeaways.
1. Rubio’s Message Hits Florida Voting Target
When Bernie Sanders pulled off his surprise win over Hillary Clinton in Michigan, pundits suggested that disaffected, underemployed, white working-class voters had been the key to his success. But Christian Lowe offered another suggestion — Hillary’s anti-gun rhetoric at the debate before the primary had not gone over well. “Michigan has a long hunting and shooting tradition and has some of the highest rates of hunting license sales and firearm background checks in the country,” he wrote.
Last night, Donald Trump was asked about his support of Obama’s normalization with Cuba. His answer was so bad that the crowd alternately booed, mumbled, and laughed at how little he understood about the political situation in Cuba. He changed his position from support of Obama to complete opposition, one of many on-the-fly changes he made during the evening. He told a room full of Cubans that 50 years had passed, and it was time to let things go lest Cubans sue the United States.
By contrast, Rubio absolutely crushed his answer. He explained that he opposes normalization because Cuba will be financially rewarded, even though it has not changed its oppressive political situation. Here’s a bit from Rubio’s third discussion on Cuba, from the CNN transcript:
RUBIO: All right, first of all, the embassy is the former consulate. It’s the same building. So it could just go back to being called a consulate. We don’t have to close it that way. Second of all, I don’t know where Cuba is going to use, but if they sue us in a court in Miami, they’re going to lose.
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
Third, on the issue of a good deal, I know what the good deal. I’ll tell you what the good deal now, it’s already codified. Here’s a good deal — Cuba has free elections, Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out, Cuba has freedom of the press, Cuba kicks out the Russians from Lourdes (ph) and kicks out the Chinese listening station in Berupal (ph) Cuba stops helping North Korea evade U.N. sanctions, Cuba takes all of those fugitives of America justice, including that cop killer from New Jersey, and send her back to the United States and to jail where she belongs. And you know what? Then we can have a relationship with Cuba. That’s a good deal.
This may not be a huge issue nationally, but Florida has a large population of Cuban Republicans. This was a good example of how Rubio tailored his message to Florida voters he needs to win a come-from-behind primary battle.
2. Kid Gloves Worn by All, to Trump’s Benefit
The last debate in Detroit was an utter clown show. It featured Trump loudly protesting that his manhood was not small, and that wasn’t even the low point. Trump did nothing other than insult and jeer. And Rubio and Cruz did a great job of roughing him up as they had in previous debates.
For some reason, they decided that they no longer would do that. As a result, while Trump didn’t have any particularly great or funny answers, he also didn’t have the meltdowns that have characterized debates in which he faced pressure.
3. Trump’s Lack of Substance Was Glaring
The majority of Republican voters who oppose Trump may have wished for Rubio and Cruz to throw more punches at him, there’s no doubt that they revealed him as someone whose ideas about policies are loud, but extremely shallow.
Cruz mocked Trump for saying “China bad, Muslims bad” but not understanding problems, much less any workable solutions. He said his language was incendiary but his proposals were impotent.
No matter the question, whether it was on education, entitlement reform, foreign policy, or anything else, viewers were shown dramatic difference between Trump’s word-waving and Cruz and Rubio’s — and even John Kasich’s — policy ideas.
There’s no way anyone could watch the debate and think that Trump knew much about education, foreign policy, or management of the federal government. And there is no way anyone could watch the debate and think that Rubio, Cruz, or Kasich was ignorant of these things. On the other hand, Trump is much better at speaking broadly and with clear messages about American strength. They have no depth, but voters might prefer shallow and celebrity-style boldness over smart and politically bold.
Trump also continued his pattern of flip-flopping on the issues. In addition to Cuba policy, he changed his positions on a proposed 45 percent tax on foreign goods, and, most dramatically, on sending 30,000 ground troops to fight ISIS.
4. Trump Remarks on Chinese Strength
Jake Tapper asked Trump to comment on Republican concerns about statements he’d made seemingly in praise of authoritarian dictators. He quoted him speaking highly of Vladimir Putin and the military crushing of Tiananmen Square protesters.
Trump said he wasn’t praising these things but just commenting on their strength. He didn’t take the opportunity to say anything critical. This was not exactly what you’d call a presidential look.
The answer was so bad that Kasich, usually reticent to take on Trump, exploded saying, “I think that the Chinese government butchered those kids. And when that guy stood in front — that young man stood in front of that tank, we ought to build a statue of him over here when he faced down the Chinese government.”
5. Trump Asked about Violence at Rallies
The CNN questioners, who included Hugh Hewitt and the Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan, did a very good job. They asked questions on Cuba, education, jobs, immigration, and much more. Jake Tapper asked Trump to discuss the violent outbursts that have taken place at some of his rallies. Tapper noted that a Trump fan had been arrested yesterday for sucker-punching a Trump critic.
Trump denied knowing anything about the situation but said that, generally speaking, Trump fans just love the country so much and are angry about bad deals to the point of violence.
When Trump denied instigating any of the violence, Tapper read out quotes of some of his calls for violence. It was a good line of questioning, even if Trump responded mostly by trying to change the subject.
The one problem was not mentioning that Trump campaign official Corey Lewandowski is at the center of a scandal involving his alleged assault of a reporter. There is audio of the event, which includes the reporter and a witness discussing what happened. And Lewandowski had previously admitted to the assault, according to sources, but nobody asked during the debate.
Instead, after the debate, Trump and Lewandowski were asked. Both began claiming that the reporter had made up her story. Lewandowski took to Twitter to accuse her of lying.